Late Tuesday night, close to 180,000 people watched online as Democratic Senator Wendy Davis went into the final hours of her nearly 13-hour filibuster in the Texas legislature. Her objective was to block anti-abortion legislation that, if passed, threatened to close 37 of the 42 abortion clinics in America’s second-largest state.
That event – considering the gruesome alternatives to safe, legal abortions that women would then inevitably pursue – would make for some of the worst country songs ever. If the loss of women’s autonomy over their bodies isn’t enough to give you pause, just imagine the coat-hanger country music.
Obtaining an abortion, a constitutional right in the United States, would become close to impossible for the vast majority of Texan women if that bill became law. Perhaps fittingly, Ms. Davis employed an imperfect, last-resort mechanism, but the only one at her disposal – the filibuster – to try to prevent the bill’s passage. Equally symbolically, the male Republican majority of senators did all that they could, and some that they technically could not, to stop her.
Texas filibuster rules demanded that Ms. Davis keep speaking, remain standing, and not use the bathroom, break for a meal, nor stray from the topic at hand. Republicans tried to disqualify her for failing to remain “germane” when she spoke of sonograms (which Texas law requires before an abortion) and of funding for Planned Parenthood, and when she had help adjusting her back brace.
Repeated attempts were made to shut down Ms. Davis’s filibuster by asking her to yield the floor “to a woman.” As though not to do so would be unchivalrous of her. Much of the bill itself is also couched, as these things frequently are, in concern for the well-being of women, presumed not to know their own minds. What did they expect Ms. Davis to do? Sit down and say, “Oh, a woman? I’d better take her question, thus ending my filibuster. What if she needs to borrow a tampon or something?”
The filibuster rules of the Texas Legislature say “three strikes, you’re out,” and when Republicans insisted that Ms. Davis had strayed off topic for a second time and cut her off, debate ensued to the uproarious sound of “Let her speak!” chanted by hundreds of supporters crowded into the gallery.
It was over. Then it was not. A vote was held in the chaos, just after midnight – past the deadline. Then, as people following on Twitter – where the #StandWithWendy hashtag had quickly trended internationally – observed, and documented with screen shots, the time stamp recording the vote was changed from June 26 to June 25, in an apparent effort to conceal that the vote was invalid. As far as the optics on this are concerned, Republicans might as well have been seen twisting their moustaches and tying Ms. Davis to the railway tracks.
All the while, Ms. Davis remained standing.
It would have been gripping television, had it been on television. But none of the major news networks carried the filibuster. Indeed, at the height of the drama, CNN broke the news to the world, complete with a banner specifying that a blueberry muffin contains 350 calories.
The utter unresponsiveness of cable news, contrasted with the coverage provided online – where links to relevant news items were rapidly traded, providing context for and explanation of the live-streamed event – should inspire an emergency summit of television-news providers. They might as well have been rerunning Walking With Dinosaurs, or covering the moon landing – perhaps the number of calories burned during the first moon walk.
After all that, the anti-abortion bill is still likely to pass. Texas Governor Rick Perry has scheduled a special session of the legislature for July 1 in order to do it. So what exactly was won?
First of all, Ms. Davis was heard. For hour upon hour, she calmly schooled her colleagues on the medical facts of pregnancy. One of her senate colleagues, for example, recently “explained” that rape kits “help a woman, basically clean her out” and so pregnancy from rape isn’t an issue (no exceptions in cases of rape will be made if the bill passes).
And a Texas congressman claimed, incorrectly, that male fetuses of 15 weeks have been observed to masturbate, thus making abortion wrong.
Arguably, in planning a 13-hour filibuster, Ms. Davis did not leave herself enough time to educate this particular bunch. But she also read the testimony of some of the bill’s opponents, the complex stories of women who sought abortions, and she made these stories news.
The bill may be passed, but it will do so with the world watching and judging.